The co-founders of California Pizza Kitchen Inc. are at it again.

After selling their restaurant empire to private equity firm Golden Gate Capital in 2011 for $470 million, Larry Flax and Rick Rosenfield are facing the heat of the kitchen again with the recent opening of an upscale seafood eatery in Brentwood and plans for a sit-down pizza restaurant.

Through their investment firm, Flax and Rosenfield Capital Partners, they opened Bottlefish last month. The restaurant offers a raw bar with oysters and entrees including sautéed branzino and lentils for $27. The partners worked on the concept for two and a half years.

“We were looking around at what we thought was trending,” said Flax, 74. “I like to think seafood is a very healthy alternative. Also, it just tastes good.”

Their new pizza venture, Smoke and Stone, will focus on ingredients and have a higher price point than CPK, they said. It will also be bar-oriented.

“We’re reinventing CPK for the 21st century,” said Rosenfield, 71. “Not to denigrate CPK, but we get to write on a clean slate. Today, people are very interested in sourcing – organic, farm to table, the type of ingredients.”

Although they have a name and menu, they don’t yet have a location. Rosenfield said he expects the restaurant to open somewhere in Los Angeles this year.

The partners, who were co-chief executives and co-chairmen of California Pizza Kitchen when they left in 2011, didn’t sign a noncompete agreement.

They’re looking to leverage the real estate relationships they built with California Pizza Kitchen, which they founded while running their law practice in 1985 in Beverly Hills, such as the one they have with developer Rick Caruso, who was the first franchisee.

Rosenfield said they will return to their strategy of opening in affluent areas, noting that at the time they sold the restaurant company, an independent researcher had found that the chain’s core customers had the highest income and education of any chain in America. The partners won’t, however, open near a California Pizza Kitchen because it could cannibalize the business.

The duo had announced in 2013 that they were going to do a fast-casual, order-at-the-counter pizza concept, but scrapped those plans as the space got crowded.

“We saw everyone jumping into it, and we said, There’s going to be a real estate rush and it’s pretty saturated,” said Flax. “I think our prediction turned out to be prophetic.”

The pizza market has shown signs of contracting recently, as some chains have acquired others or had to close stores, including L.A.’s Pizza Studio., which shuttered several locations last year.

Bottlefish is the first restaurant the team has opened since LA Food Show, which they started while still at California Pizza Kitchen, now headquartered in Playa Vista. Golden Gate Capital shut down LA Food Show in 2012 to focus on its main restaurant, Flax said.

Flax and Rosenfield would like to open more locations of Bottlefish, but are waiting to see how it does.

“If you had asked me at the beginning of CPK if there would be over 200 restaurants, I would have told you that’s crazy,” said Flax.

Norms Down, Not Out

When one Norms closes, another opens.

The Westwood location of iconic L.A. diner chain Norms Restaurants Inc. closed in late December, reducing the total number of units to 17.

But the company, which was sold by the descendants of founder Norm Roybark in 2014, is planning an expansion, according to President Mike Colonna. The chain is now managed by a holding company for CapitalSpring, a New York private equity company with more than $1 billion in investments that specializes in restaurants, according to a document filed with the state.

Norms, which is headquartered in Bellflower and has around 1,800 employees, plans on opening eight to 10 restaurants in greater Los Angeles over the next few years, Colonna said.

“We bought the company in 2014 from the original owners with the intent to manage it, add value for guests and the ownership, and to try to develop it,” he said.

The company has already secured a location owned by the city of El Monte that it expects will open next year and generate $4.2 million in annual sales, according to city documents. The chain might later look at expanding to nearby states.

Norms sold the Westwood location, where it had been for almost 50 years, to Santa Monica developer NMS Properties in 2015 for $8.25 million, according to CoStar Realty Information Inc.

Staff reporter Caroline Anderson can be reached at canderson@labusinessjournal.com or (323) 556-8329.

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